If you come to Brawl In Cell Block 99 with a backpack full of sociopolitical concerns, you’ll find plenty over which to get upset. The film is two-plus hours of anachronistic machismo, gleefully stomping across the imaginary line that separates the latest Scott Adkins punchfest from more “acceptable” mainstream fare. And stepping over that line tends to catch the attention of touristy concern trolls in a way that the standard B-action stuff manages to avoid. But in the brazen ignoring of that arbitrary boundary, writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s new film positions itself as a masterful, willfully misanthropic throwback. It will be upsetting or even maybe offensive to viewers unaccustomed to this level of onscreen savagery, but for those in tune with its wavelength, Brawl In Cell Block 99 is an audacious, assured, and abundant helping of pulp exploitation that’s not to be missed.
The film's premise is old-school film noir by way of Edward Bunker: ex-con Bradley Thomas (Vince Vaughn) runs out of patience with the straight and narrow failing to pan out, and after being fired from a local garage decides to work for a drug dealer pal to give his wife and himself the kind of life that following the rules was supposed to deliver. 18 months into the gig a drug pickup goes very south of okay, and soon Bradley is looking at a seven-year prison stretch. Once inside, Bradley is given an ultimatum by a crime lord with a grudge: find a way to kill a prisoner located in a different, maximum security prison, or the lives of Bradley's wife and unborn baby are forfeit.
The above synopsis is roughly the first half of the film; from there we follow Bradley as he enacts an INCREDIBLY violent plan to get himself transferred first to the new, rougher prison, and then inside the nightmarish, titular Cell Block 99 in search of his target. What happens inside 99 will remain unspoiled here, but one note of criticism: “Brawl” is so tame a description as to be wildly inaccurate. Brace yourselves.
Much like 2015’s Bone Tomahawk, Zahler is uninterested in your snappy 2017 pacing; his story moves on a slow, stubborn, deliberate path, and time expands and contracts to suit the director's focus. Some viewers will find the pace frustrating, but watching Zahler luxuriate in his dialogue-driven character moments is as rewarding as all the single-take bone snapping that brings the film home. Character actors familiar and new fill Zahler’s frame and it’s a joy to watch them bounce off one another, both verbally and pugilistically. Vaughn is no-shit mesmerizing, clearly relishing the role of this southern samurai stomping through Staten Island. The film introduces Bradley on a very bad day, and presents him at the outset as a wholly violent man, but one who prefers to vent his rage on inanimate objects. (A scene in which Bradley tears his wife’s car to pieces, then calmly chats with her about the course of their marriage, manages to both terrify and evoke empathy.) But true to the title, Vaughn can brawl, and it’s refreshing to see him presented not as some gym-hard specimen, but as a Robert Mitchum-esque slab of meat whose main defensive move seems to be "take the punch full to the face." Poke around Vaughn’s CV and you’ll see an actor who’s constantly trying to break out of a box; this might be the role that convinces everyone else to get on board. Seen by enough people, this is Vaughn’s Pulp Fiction moment.
He’s ably supported by Jennifer Carpenter as his wife Lauren, Udo Kier as an underworld fixer, and Don Johnson (who will get most of the critical attention as an Arpaio-esque prison warden), but Mustafa Shakir as a boxing-obsessed prison guard and Willie C. Carpenter as a fellow inmate also shine in small but crucial roles. The cast, like the film itself, rides a line between B-movie archetypes and something more nuanced, and the effect is singular.
Ditto the film’s vintage-sounding R&B soundtrack, which is in fact new material co-written by Zahler Jeff Herriott and recorded by acts like the O’Jays and Butch Tavares. Full disclosure: upon not recognizing the songs, I simply assumed it was a collection of deep cuts and rarities. But Zahler’s penchant for world-building extends to viewers’ ears - including the most nauseating foley work heard onscreen since...well, since Bone Tomahawk. Punches land like cannons and bones crack like split tree limbs, but of all the sounds that set the screening audience on edge, there’s a...well, a scrape that will haunt you.
When Bone Tomahawk unleashed Zahler’s blend of old-school storytelling, colorful dialogue and boundary-pushing violence into the world two years ago, there was a perhaps well-intentioned urge to christen the director as "the next Tarantino", to hand him some other filmmaker's mantel to take up. With Brawl In Cell Block 99, it's now safe to declare Zahler isn't the "next" anyone. He's the first S. Craig Zahler, and his odes to noble misanthropy and righteous violence are sung in a key no one else is even trying to hit.